The career trajectory of our monumental right fielder reminds me of another beloved American son who’s perhaps equally famous: Jack-Jack, the youngest child of Mr. and Mrs. Incredible. In the sequel to Pixar’s 2004 blockbuster, Jack-Jack begins demonstrating his awe-inspiring powers while still just a baby. His abilities are clearly tremendous, but his control over them decidedly less so. The immature superhero, while impressive, is frequently more of a liability than an asset.
It was clear from the moment Aaron Judge stepped on a big-league diamond that we were dealing with an unusual baseball player, starting with his stature. His first career plate appearance resulted in a mammoth home run into Monument Park, but his first few months resulted in a disappointing .179 batting average. Judge broke out in 2017, swatting 52 homers and winning Rookie of the Year, but also enduring a brutal two-month stretch that summer in which he hit .207 and struck out in nearly 36 percent of his at-bats. A fearsome threat with undeniable power, it remained to be seen whether Judge could harness his potential and rise into a class with the game’s best.
Three years after his debut, the answer is no longer in doubt. Though he’s fought through frustrating injuries both this year and last, Judge consistently demonstrates his transformation from a feast-or-famine home run threat to a bonafide master of the hitter’s sophisticated craft. He likely won’t ever hit 52 home runs in a season again, but that’s fine because he’s a better player now than he was then. Unpredictable and frightening baby Judge has morphed into the leader that a pennant-contending outfit like the 2019 Yankees needs. Let’s take a closer look at his offensive game to see why, with some help from Statcast.
Remarkably, Judge has hit the ball harder this season than in either of the last two. He’s recording the highest average exit velocity of his career in 2019, at 96.9 MPH, and his hard-hit percentage sits at an even 60 after hovering between 54 and 55 the last two years. His average launch angle is also down a couple of degrees this year, and we’ve definitely seen fewer jaw-dropping moonshots, but Judge is making up for this with an improvement in his approach. Along with the decrease in fly balls has come an almost complete absence of popups (1.3 percent this year against 5.3 percent in 2019) and a rise in line drives (34.7 percent this year, 26.3 in 2017).
We’ve also seen a change in his directional hitting. While Judge was never what we might call a “dead pull” hitter, he’s certainly improved in this regard. Per FanGraphs, Judge’s pull/center/opposite field batted ball percentage splits are a satisfyingly symmetrical 30.7/34.7/34.7. Best of all, he’s spraying that higher number of line drives to all fields, and he’s hitting those liners hard more than half the time. These aren’t lazy bloops into no man’s land; they’re lasers. Add it all up, and Judge is producing the best-expected batting average of his career, and his expected wOBA is better than 2018 and not too far off from his near-MVP rookie season. He isn’t crushing dingers at a record pace anymore, but he’s producing in the upper echelon and becoming a more difficult hitter to pitch to.
Judge’s famously high strikeout rate hasn’t dropped all that much this year, and at first glance, he looks like the same swing-and-miss machine he’s been for a while. He’s still having a fair amount of difficulty with breaking stuff (47.1 percent whiff rate). But he’s hugely improved his game in one important way: he’s cutting down on swings and misses against fastballs. Judge’s whiff rate against those pitches was 24.3 percent in 2017 and 27.7 percent last year. In 2019, it’s cratered to just 16.3. Obviously, 2019 is a much smaller sample size and might be a slightly skewed comparison for that reason. But these heat maps showcase the extent to which Judge just isn’t getting beaten with fastballs this year. The percentages demonstrate the number of swings on pitches in that particular area that were whiffs. Pay particular attention to the space in the strike zone. 2017 is on the left, 2019 on the right.
Judge is hitting .362 and slugging .667, with an average exit velocity of 97.7 MPH, off fastballs this year. He’s covering more of the plate and pitchers are having a harder time sneaking them past him. We’ll see how the opposition adjusts as the season goes on but look for Judge’s already-impressive walk rate to rise even further as pitchers begin to nibble the corners instead of daring Judge to beat them with something hittable.
It’s too bad that Judge missed two months with an oblique strain. That’s likely what’s keeping him from a third straight All-Star appearance and a repeat of 2017’s top-two MVP vote performance. As the second half gets underway, I expect Judge to fully hit his stride and begin going yard more often to supplement his new and improved approach. Judge is always going to strike out at a fair clip, partially because it’s so difficult for umpires to call his enormous strike zone, but he’s already shown that he can make adjustments and force pitchers work harder. I should mention that Jack-Jack ends up playing a significant role in saving the day at the end of Incredibles 2. Worlds away in the Bronx, a fearsome yet unpolished youngster have grown into an equally mighty superhero. Will he hoist his city onto his broad shoulders and carry its team to a 28th pennant? We’ll need to finish watching the movie to find out.